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How To Drive in the Snow

Skidding out of control on icy roads toward a solid object is a decidedly unpleasant event. It is even more unsettling if the object is a roadside barricade meant to prevent vehicles from plunging off an adjacent cliff. The more disastrous scenario is that you have lost control of your 3,000-pound SUV during a snowstorm and are sliding quickly toward a subcompact filled with a pair of astonished parents and their terrified brood.

Unless you have been trained in how to respond to a snow- or ice-induced skid, you will invariably succumb to what the experts call "target fixation." That is: focusing on your impending doom instead of taking proper evasive action. This will result in a crash.

It's a crash that could have been avoided, says Jerry Pearl, general manager of the Bridgestone Winter Driving School at Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Pearl has been teaching people how to drive safely in the snow for 18 years. Not just any people, either. Although the school mostly serves ordinary citizens, it has also instructed some elite police, security and law enforcement agencies in the U.S. Among the program's graduates are officers of the Defense Department, the Secret Service and the FBI. Pearl has also taught members of state and city police forces from across the country.

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Most of these clients enroll in the school's two-day Performance Program ($1,475), which teaches advanced winter driving techniques, such as deliberate, controlled skids like those performed by professional rally drivers. Pearl says a lot of engineers from various automakers also attend this course, as they find it helps them to understand vehicle dynamics -- invaluable information in the design and implementation of stability and skid control systems.

Most ordinary drivers sign up for either the three-hour, half-day tutorial ($145) or the more involved full-day, six-hour course ($275).

If you live in a snowy region, other schools likely exist in your area. It's money well spent if you consider that even the full-day course is less costly than the average insurance deductible, not to mention what you might pay in police fines and increased premiums if you are unfortunate enough to suffer a winter driving accident.

While there's no substitute for hands-on professional instruction and actual driving experience, Pearl offers the following tips to drivers in winter conditions:

  1. Be prepared: Before you set out in winter weather, make sure your vehicle is properly equipped, says Pearl. That means snow tires or chains in extreme conditions.
  2. Slow down: Driving too fast is the No. 1 winter driving error, Pearl says. "Read the road to choose the appropriate speed," he instructs. Slippery roads make every mistake happen faster and more dramatically. And don't think antilock brakes, stability systems or other vehicle control mechanisms will help you if you're sliding, Pearl warns. "If you're going too fast, you're going to go off the road and nothing's going to change that."
  3. Look ahead: "Winter drivers need to use their eyes more effectively," states Pearl. Not only should you be aware of road ice and other slippery conditions, but you should also double the distance you normally allow between you and the car in front of you. An easy calculation for this distance is four car lengths for every 10 mph you are traveling. That means if you are doing 40 mph, you should leave 16 car lengths between you and the vehicle ahead. Also, says Pearl, look ahead and get ready for corners and other obstacles before you arrive at them. "A good driver looks ahead and anticipates problems. An inattentive driver doesn't watch the road and is forced to react to problems, usually abruptly."
  4. Brake before you enter a corner: Smoothly apply your brakes before you reach a corner and then release the brakes and use all the grip of the car to corner. Then, once you are through the turn, accelerate out. "Enter a corner with too much speed and then try to adjust in the corner and you will lose grip," warns Pearl. When the wheels are braking, their surface becomes static and they can behave like four hockey pucks and can move multidirectionally (that is: spin). If that happens, you will likely lose control of your vehicle.
  5. Practice the smooth and effective use of the vehicle's controls: As in the cornering instruction above, Pearl teaches his winter driving students to use their vehicle controls smoothly and surely. "The steering wheel gives people the most trouble," he observes. "They're too rough and imprecise with it." The result of bad steering wheel control is that your vehicle will become imbalanced. Once that happens, you'll probably skid. Therefore, it's important to stay in control of your vehicle's weight distribution. That takes some understanding of your vehicle's physical dynamics.
  6. Be informed: Regardless of whether your vehicle is rear-wheel, front-wheel or all-wheel drive, the results of a loss of balance are the same, Pearl explains. What you need to understand is where the bulk of your vehicle's weight resides and how your engine power can affect that weight. In a pickup, all the weight is in the front with the engine and the cab, so, with little weight over them, the rear wheels have tenuous grip and the back end can easily slip out. Likewise, a rear-wheel-drive musclecar, such as a Ford Mustang GT, has a lopsided power-to-weight ratio, so its back end is also prone to losing grip on slippery roads. A front-wheel-drive, front-engine sedan, such as a Honda Accord, also has a light rear, so that if you abruptly lift off the accelerator in a corner, all the weight shifts to the front and the rear has little grip. The result can be that the car will pull to the side in a corner and spin out.
  7. Learn how to control a skid: Although this is probably best learned and practiced on a driving course, Pearl describes what you should do if you find yourself in an oversteer situation (meaning: your car is turning too much). "You have to go against your natural tendencies," he says. "Turn into the skid. You also need to accelerate." That last piece of advice seems to freak people out the most, he admits. "People don't think about accelerating to control the car." However, many oversteer skids can be controlled and a disaster averted simply by releasing the brake and gently accelerating. This transfers the weight from the front to the rear wheels, which allows you to steer into the direction of the skid, gain control of the vehicle and continue safely on your way. If you drive a rear-wheel-drive vehicle, cautions Pearl, be careful not to over-accelerate or the tires may spin and you will oversteer and slide out of the turn. In an understeer skid (when your car refuses to turn and is sliding), once again it's important not to react instinctively by over-correcting the steering wheel, by braking or by doing both simultaneously. Understeering is usually caused by entering a corner too quickly and then turning. To turn the vehicle effectively, your wheels need grip. If you react to an understeer skid by turning more, you're only asking for more grip, which is unavailable. The same is true if you brake. Instead, Pearl advises, in an understeer skid, carefully adjust your steering wheel until you regain some grip at the front wheels. Once grip is restored, gently and precisely add steering. Of course, this requires room to maneuver, but if you adhere to point No. 3 above, you should have plenty of room.

Mastering control of your vehicle in snow and other winter driving conditions comes with learning proper driving techniques and with experience. In time, encourages Pearl, you should develop what he calls a good "seat of the pants" feel for winter driving, meaning an intuition about how your car will behave in certain situations and circumstances.

Until then, go slow in the snow. Or stay home and make hot chocolate.